Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

This is: Vietnam 2010

From prisons to palaces - an introduction to Hanoi

We got up around 0730 and had breakfast in the Executive Lounge, where I remembered to wish Bruce a happy Thanksgiving Day. We were ready for the road by 0920. The first main objective for the morning was what remains of Hoa Lo Prison, also wryly known as the other 'Hanoi Hilton'. Before that though, we had a major landmark right there on our own doorstep in the form of the Opera House, which interestingly seemed to be the subject of some kind of art class that was going on across the street. After spending a few minutes admiring the building, we set off in search of the former prison, through busy streets with the now familiar constant backdrop of purring motorbike engines. 

Having located the remains of the prison, we had a look at the exhibits, a good number of which featured former US presidential candidate Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former inmate.

Continuing on towards the Temple of Literature, I was once again reminded that just walking the streets in this country provided a never-ending source of interest: whether it was the impossibly narrow buildings (constructed in this way for tax purposes) or the chaotic traffic or simply scenes of everyday life, I found that I was constantly pausing to capture either the scene or the moment.

Soon enough, we arrived at the morning's second main objective, the Temple of Literature, locally known as Van Mieu. This is a Confucian temple dating back as far as 1070 which, just six years later, became home to Vietnam's first university. It was therefore both opportune and entirely appropriate that we managed to arrive at what looked like the end of a graduation ceremony for local students. A memorable incident took place soon after we had entered the grounds when a young postcard seller approached me. My friendly "no, thank you" prompted a startling intrusion of personal space, when he rubbed my abdomen in a circular motion while beaming from ear to ear and saying "You very HAPPY - like Buddha!" "Right, that's it," I thought, "the diet starts next week!"   The surprise would have been greater, were it not for the fact that Bruce had experienced an almost identical incident in Shanghai the previous year.

It was then a very short walk to the nearby Koto restaurant, run by Jimmy Pham along similar lines to Jamie Oliver's Fifteen chain, aiming to recruit young people (often with difficult backgrounds) and train them to do something really worthwhile. I had Bun Cha, which was a pork meatball soup served with separate noodles to dunk.

After lunch and a bit of a rest, we set off again. The afternoon's main objective was the Presidential Palace area, but we took a bit of a detour to get there in search of the remains of a crashed B52 bomber from the 1970s war. The walk was even more interesting than usual, as the streets were less well known to tourists. We did eventually discover some old military hardware, but unfortunately it was in the middle of a construction site for what we assumed would one day be a new museum.

Undaunted, we redirected ourselves towards the palace and its associated buildings. At one point, in an attempt to escape some of the chaos, we veered off down a quiet alleyway. It was interesting to see such a different aspect of local life, never more so than when we came across two men working on the ground. Neatly laid out on a little mat between them, thankfully minus the messiest bits, were the separated body parts of a freshly butchered dog. Judging by its skinless head, I guessed that it was about the size of a spaniel. I would normally expect to be revolted by such a sight, especially coming so soon after lunch, but somehow I managed to regard it in a matter-of-fact way. Oh look, it's a butchered dog. I suppose it was my subconscious way of dealing with it. Travel certainly does broaden the mind.

In due course, we emerged in the vicinity of the underwhelming One Pillar Pagoda and the rather communist-looking Ho Chi Minh Museum, around which much grounds maintenance and/or reconstruction was taking place. We pressed on past the equally austere, yet impressive, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum towards the altogether more beautiful Presidential Palace. We bought tickets for the designated 'foreigner route' through the gardens, which took in the car collection and the house on stilts, used by Ho Chi Minh between 1958 and 1969 to demonstrate the virtue of simplicity. Bruce was ambushed by a group of young female tourists, who wanted pictures with a Westerner! After a small refreshment in the palace grounds, we decided to have a quick look at the Chua Tran Quoc pagoda before the light faded any more.

Realising that we were on the shore of the West Lake, with the Sheraton visible in the distance, brought home to us just how much ground we had covered on foot and reinforced a growing feeling that it was time to call it a day and take a taxi back to the hotel. We managed to hail one almost instantly, and thankfully it was metered. The cab took us back to the Opera House via the Old Quarter that we were due to explore the following day. The horrendous rush-hour traffic ground to a halt in the old town area for many minutes, thanks to a bus that managed to get itself stuck in a busy intersection. In spite of the delays, the journey cost a mere 2 US dollars. Before going back into the hotel, we decided to have coffee in the little garden area separating the Opera House and the Hilton. It was a particularly civilised end to the afternoon and resembled a scene straight out of Paris!

After a breather in the room and a chance to freshen up, we had a quick drink in the lounge before taking a cab to the Highway 4 restaurant. Our four-course meal with aperitif and wine came to a total of 30 US dollars. The food was not quite up to expectations, but we certainly couldn't fault the value for money! After we had eaten our fill, the Hilton was just another quick and cheap cab-ride away.

And so ended a very busy day, full of memorable sights, sounds, tastes and experiences. As I nodded off for the night, my brain was awash with images of opera houses, prison cells, motorbikes, belly-rubbing, ancient temples, more motorbikes, dead dogs, austere museums, graceful palaces, pagodas and traffic jams. And more motorbikes. Life's rich tapestry had just become even more elaborate.

Thursday 25 Nov

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